Library: Kabbalsh & Chassidism
The Chassidic Approach To Joy By Shloma Majesky
Publisher's Foreword Mind-Control
Understanding, the Core of Joy Growing From Pain
Being Happy at All Times Growing Beyond the "I"
Seeing the Silver Lining Letting Go
Expanding Our Horizons Simchah: A Dynamic of Empowerment
Probing Beneath the Surface A Lightning Rod to the Spiritual Realms
Confronting Challenges Bringing Moshiach with Happiness

Chapter 9: Growing Beyond the "I"

In the previous chapter, we differentiated between merirus, "bitterness," which we explained as the type of feeling bad that leads to positive activity, and atzvus, which we translated as depression. Merirus involves a recognition of one's faults, but it is based on a positive sense of well-being that pushes us toward a solution. Atzvus is a lifeless feeling that produces no positive results. It leads to inactivity and causes personal damage.

Why does one person experience atzvus while another experiences merirus? What is the source for these different feelings and what makes us prone to one or the other?

Another question on a related matter: In the previous chapters, we explained that if a person is overcome with depression, he should dismiss the disturbing thoughts from his mind. Ultimately, he should recognize that everything comes from G-d, and everything is therefore in essence good. But on an immediate and practical level, the most effective way of dealing with a problem is by dismissing the negative and depressing thoughts from his mind. The direct cause for the displeasure we feel is not the negative event itself, but the fact that we are thinking about it. If a person were able to dismiss from his mind the thoughts that upset him, he would not experience so much discomfort.

This concept also requires an explanation. If it is so much more comfortable just to dismiss negative thoughts from our minds, why do we not do it easily? Why do we find that one of the most difficult things for people to do is to dismiss these negative thoughts from their minds? Why is it so difficult to let go? Why do we hold on to something that is destructive?

There is one point lying at the core of both issues: yeshus. Yeshus means obsession with self. It is important for a person to have a positive self-image. A person should feel strong, confident, and resilient. Without such positive feelings, he will not function successfully in his relations with others nor for that matter, in his relations with G-d.1

But yeshus is more than a positive self-image; it is an approach in which self lies at the core of the person's being and dominates consciously and subconsciously the person's approach to life. This approach is the source of depression. Everything that happens to such a person, whatever goes on in his life, revolves around one question: how does it affect his self ?

Things are bound to happen to every person that do not fit his ideal of the way things should be. And it is likely that all of us from time to time will fail in certain objectives, or be hurt by other people. When a person is involved with his ego, these factors will hurt his sense of self and make him feel bad. But what is worse is that he holds tight to the hurt and does not let go. He cannot let go, because it is his self that is involved, and his self is all that he is concerned with.

A person who is not focused on himself can let go. We do not always succeed. Our dreams are not always fulfilled, and not all our relationships work out. A person who is not very self-concerned can, however, look past a temporary failure, go on with his life, and do so with happiness.

There are no absolutes here. Everybody thinks about himself, but the question is: "in which way?" Take the following example: A physician treats a patient who has a difficult disease, and he succeeds in curing him. He will surely be happy, but there are two possible reasons for his happiness.

The first focuses on the good he has accomplished. A person was suffering, his life was in danger, and now the person will be able to live a happy and fruitful life and continue to bring joy to his family.

The second reason focuses on the physician's own power of achievement. He is proud and happy that he was the one able to effect the cure. It is his feelings of self that bring him happiness.

The same holds true when, G-d forbid, the situation is reversed when the physician works very hard to save a patient's life, but realizes that he may not be successful. One type of person will be very upset because a person is dying. He sees the sad faces of everybody in the family, and that hurts him and causes him pain.

The other type of person will also be upset, but his main thought will be "I failed." He will be upset that he was not able to cure the patient not so much for the patient's sake, but more for his own. He is hurt when he does not succeed.

We all are motivated by both these thrusts. Each of us shares a certain degree of sensitivity to others, and every one of us has a certain measure of self-concern. The question is, however, what is the person's prime motivating factor.

A yesh, a person preoccupied with himself, is motivated by his ego. This is what pushes him forward throughout the day. In contrast, a person who is buttel, selfless, is focused on the goals he seeks to accomplish. He is also conscious of his self. He takes responsibility and knows that others are relying on him. But his self whether he succeeds or fails is not his main point of focus. His attention is centered on goals and objectives.

Take the following example: A person gets up in front of a crowd of 500 people to deliver a lecture. In such a situation, he is very conscious of himself and what he is doing. Let us take the same person in a totally different situation: he gets on a bus and drops a token into the register. Does he know he is walking onto the bus? Yes. Does he know that he is dropping the token in? Yes. Is he thinking of himself in the same way he thinks of himself when he is standing on stage before all those people? Absolutely not.

When we carry out our ordinary day-to-day activities, we are aware of what we are doing, but we do not attach any self-importance to the deed. Our approach is matter-of-fact, to deal with the situation in front of us. But when we are on stage, or in other situations where we are singled out for attention, we become conscious of our selves ; we think of how we appear to others and what they think of us.

We see from this that there are two ways of functioning. One way is to focus on what I am doing; the task in front of me. And the other is to focus on the fact that I am doing it, to see myself more than the task I have to perform.

A yesh is a person who puts the focus on himself. His thoughts revolve around himself, and how everything he encounters will affect him.

Bittul, the opposite of yeshus, means nullifying the self. But it does not mean crushing one's personality; it means dedicating oneself to a higher purpose than self , and constantly striving to achieve that purpose. When a person is buttel, he functions without being aware of himself. And that is healthy and natural. On the contrary, it is unnatural for a person to be self-conscious.

A professor of podiatry was teaching his students about the movement of the feet. He explained how the various nerves, muscles, sinews, and bones in the foot combine to work in harmony to enable us to walk. After he finished his lecture, he walked out of the classroom and headed through the campus toward his home. He began thinking of the dynamics of his movement, how moving his foot requires the synchronized function of so many different parts of the body. And he tried to sense how these different functions were taking place as he proceeded.

Can you imagine what happened? The more he thought, the clumsier his gait became, and soon he could not walk at all. His feet would not move.

How was he able to start walking again? By dismissing the entire subject from his mind. He started thinking about a different idea and paid no attention to his feet; only then was he able to walk. For when a person becomes too involved with the fact that he is doing something, he loses his ability to function naturally.

There is another similar story: A rabbi was once walking down the street. A passerby stopped him and admired his long white beard. The rabbi smiled graciously. The passerby then asked a question: "Rabbi, when you sleep at night, is your beard underneath your blanket or on top of your blanket?"

The rabbi looked very puzzled and said, "To tell you the truth, I have absolutely no idea."

The passerby did not understand. "You have had this beard for over forty years. Don't you know what happens with it at night?"

The rabbi told him, "I simply do not know."

For the next two weeks, the rabbi could not fall asleep. First, he put his beard under his blanket and he felt uncomfortable. Then he put it on top of the blanket and he felt uncomfortable. He could not find a comfortable position.

How did he sleep for forty years? When he did not think about the question, he never had a problem. When did his problems begin? When he started thinking consciously about something that should come naturally.

And that is true about so many other things. When we are busy living our lives and accomplishing things, we do not think about all the things we are doing. When our minds are focused on what has to be done, we function happily and successfully. But when a person becomes self-absorbed and starts thinking about how everything affects him that is not the natural way and it causes problems.

The differences between yeshus and bittul also lie at the heart of the differences between atzvus and merirus mentioned before. We asked: why does a person find it so difficult to let go? If he is a yesh, he cannot do that because his entire life revolves around his sense of self. He might understand that it is better to let go, but he cannot. Although it brings him only irritation and discomfort, he will continue moping about a given situation and chewing over the particulars, time and time again. It is as if he has no other alternative. He is too tied to his self ; that is what his life is all about.

But a person who is tuned into the deeper dimension of his being, the G-dliness that is within him, is not attached to his self to so great a degree. If something unpleasant happens, he is prepared to let go. He has other things on his mind; he is thinking about the other tasks he wants to accomplish and is looking toward the future, not to the past. Moreover, a person who is characterized by bittul is more accepting of G-d and His plan. In contrast, when a person is a yesh, his self-preoccupation interferes with the acceptance of G-d's will, for his ego cannot bear giving up control.

Another difference between merirus and atzvus is that a person who experiences atzvus does not think in terms of a practical solution. He just thinks in terms of how bad it is and how much worse it can get, what this one thinks about him, and how he is really not that bad; after all, compare him to his brother, his sister, his cousin or his next-door neighbor. These are the sort of thoughts that go through the mind of a depressed person. And in a certain way, these thoughts grant him a form of satisfaction.

A person who tastes merirus, by contrast, is motivated to seek a solution to the problem. He is not self-absorbed; he has committed himself to goals and purposes, and he looks at what happens in his life and in his environment in terms of these purposes. He is prepared to confront the problems that he faces, his own faults, and even his own mistakes. At the time he tastes merirus , he feels pain real pain, the kind of pain that comes from an honest appreciation of a situation that requires improvement, not the self-made pain that comes from ego obsession; but this is only a temporary feeling. Overall, he is happy, with the true sense of happiness that comes from being dedicated to a purpose and nurturing it to fulfillment.

The bottom line is that what causes depression is yeshus, a person's obsession with his own ego that prevents him from focusing on his purpose in life and the intent G-d designated for him. Such a person will remain obsessed with himself and will be unable to experience the true joy that comes from totally accepting G-d and His plan and becoming an active partner in its expression.

1. Maamar VaYasufu Anavim (Sefer HaMaamarim 5710, p. 237ff).